Movies are all about manipulation. The whole idea of cinema is to guide the eye and ear through a concept, only showing the audience what they need to see. Sometimes this is done to tell a simple story in 90 minutes. Other times, it’s to highlight an important issue in a thought-provoking way. In the case of Swiss Army Man, this is done to turn a survival narrative about a farting corpse into a rousing anthem about what makes life worth living.
Even though Swiss Army Man is certainly a film for a niche audience, it should be a requirement for anyone with a ‘Dan’ in their name to see this movie. That’s because this is a film made by Daniels of all different kinds. First off, it is the debut feature film for ‘The Daniels’ (a filmmaker duo comprised of Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert). Known for their insane short films and music videos (such as DJ Snake and Lil John’s Turn Down for What), they wrote and directed this movie about a man named Hank (Paul Dano) who gets stranded on a deserted island. Hank is about to commit suicide, when he sees a dead body wash ashore (played perfectly by a completely powerless Daniel Radcliffe, completing the ‘Daniel quadrangle’). Hank approaches the body, later named Manny, and is frustrated to find that it is indeed dead, and farting. However, his mood changes when he discovers that Manny’s farts are so powerful that Hank is able to ride Manny’s body across a body of water and into the wilderness, where Hank’s hopes of survival are reborn.
From the description, this very much seems like an idea for a movie that some dudes came up with when they realized they couldn’t think of anything interesting, and so they decided to go on the ridiculous route. And to some extent it is (though it should be noted that half of the producers were female). However, after Manny’s butt is plugged and many of his other utilities are discovered, the film becomes a meditation on intimacy, how to be an active person and what it means to be alive.
Obviously, the movie is a bit ridiculous, but it’s also probably the most unique film to come out in a long time. Swiss Army Man strongly urges focusing less on the plot and more on the allegory, but the audience still needs to be on board with the movie from the get go. It’s wild, crazy and magical, but it’s also weird and gross. However, there is a fantastic energy and pace, built off of a beautiful a cappella score by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell of the Manchester Orchestra, and executed through some fabulous editing and camera movement.
There is one point of concern that the movie fixates on as the film continues. Manny falls in love with a girl on Hank’s phone, and a large-scale production ensues in order to give Manny a feeling of what it is to be in love, and ultimately get the pair back home. This is a super creepy thing to happen, and is only redeemed in slight by the fact that they are alone in the woods, and that the rest of the movie is also pretty insane. While Swiss Army Man does eventually acknowledge the harm of the male gaze, it still leaves its main character to be a helpless, love-struck fool, which is disastrous in its own right. Thankfully, the movie doesn’t make love the crux of its existence, and focuses more on overcoming anxiety and depression.
My experience watching Swiss Army Man was a strange one. I decided to see a 9:55a.m. screening of the film, to find I was the only one to show up. I had been awake for barely an hour, and despite the constant boners and a fart count that numbered no less than 20 (I kept track), it was maybe the perfect way to start my day. The movie is strangely inspirational and heartfelt, and gives a fresh look at life. Who knew that a movie about farts could be so moving.